Join the debate. Vote Now on the Dear Abby Poll of the week.

DEAR ABBY: My husband and I have been married 18 years, and we've been through thick and thin. My husband knows all my fears, weaknesses and strengths. So why can't I get advice from him when I need him the most? I'm afraid he will think I am weak, stupid and careless. I'm afraid he will not love me anymore and will leave me.

We have two boys, and it costs a lot to raise a family these days, what with groceries, personal items and clothing. I try to make everyone happy, and it's killing me. What's ironic is that my husband thinks I'm a good money manager. I shop with coupons, etc., and tell him how much I've saved. He thinks it's great. I hate deceiving him.

My problem: We are approximately $17,000 in credit card debt. My husband is unaware of our financial situation. There is also a $3,000 loan that he does know about. He thinks $50 is a lot of money, so how do I begin to tell him we owe $17,000?

Hiding payments to the credit card companies is so stressful. The funny thing is, I didn't spend any of the money on stupid stuff. The gas cards are used because once everything else is paid, there's no money left for gas for the vehicles. Then there are family birthdays, special occasions, etc. -- and no cash for that -- so I use the store credit cards. The Visa is mostly for cash advances to pay for groceries or to supplement a checking account that has gotten too low. I think, "I'll pay this all off soon and he'll never know." But it doesn't happen, and I'm caught in this mad cycle that never ends.

Abby, I'm going crazy. Please help me with some good, sound advice. I don't want to lose my husband. I love him. I help anyone who needs it and I'm good to my husband's mother and family. I have had to forgive him on many occasions for things he has done in the past. Can he possibly forgive me?

For many months I have gone to bed at night asking God for guidance. I think he told me to write to you. -- DROWNING IN DEBT IN LOUISIANA

DEAR DROWNING: Please stop flogging yourself. You haven't done anything that hasn't been done to a lesser -- or greater -- degree by thousands of other people. The Federal Reserve reports that credit card debt hit $566 billion in January 1999.

Your husband will be understandably upset that you have kept this information from him. However, viewed rationally, you and he have far more invested in your 18-year marriage and two children than money.

Stop stalling and tell your husband of your predicament. The secrecy and not reviewing your expenses together are what have allowed this problem to get out of hand in the first place.

You and he can regain control of your finances by contacting the National Foundation for Consumer Credit (NFCC), a non-profit organization that provides education and counseling services on budgeting and credit.

To contact the NFCC member office nearest you, call toll-free from a touch-tone phone: (800) 388-2227. You can also get information from the NFCC Web site: www.nfcc.org. Please don't put this off any longer, because the organization can provide you with a workable solution to your problem.

For an excellent guide to becoming a better conversationalist and a more attractive person, order "How to Be Popular." Send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby Popularity Booklet, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Dear Abby